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Recursive Contracts

and Endogenously Incomplete Markets

Mikhail Golosov, Aleh Tsyvinski and Nicolas Werquin

January 2016

Abstract

In this chapter we study dynamic incentive models in which risk sharing is endoge-

nously limited by the presence of informational or enforcement frictions. We comprehen-

sively overview one of the most important tools for the analysis such problems the theory

of recursive constracts. Recursive formulations allow to reduce often complex models to a

sequence of essentially static problems that are easier to analyze both analytically and com-

putationally. We first provide a self-contained treatment of the basic theory: the Revelation

Principle, formulating and simplifying the incentive constraints, using promised utilities as

state variables, and analyzing models with persistent shocks using the first-order approach.

We then discuss more advanced topics: duality theory and Lagrange multiplier techniques,

models with lack of commitment, and martingale methods in continuous time. Finally, we

show how a variety of applications in public economics, corporate finance, development and

international economics featuring incompete risk-sharing can be analyzed using the tools of

the theory of recursive contracts.

Golosov: Princeton University; Tsyvinski: Yale University; Werquin: Toulouse School of Economics. Golosovand Tsyvinski thank the NSF for financial support.

1 Introduction

Dynamic incentive problems are ubiquitous in macroeconomics. The design of social insurance

programs by governments, long-run relationships between banks and enterpreneurs, informal in-

surance contracts against idiosyncratic shocks provided in village economies, sovereign borrowing

and lending between countries can all be understood using the theory of dynamic incentives.

These models have been widely used in macroeconomics, public economics, international macro,

finance, developement, or political economy, both for explaining existing patterns in the data and

for normative policy analysis. The unifying feature of these models is that, at their essence, they

study endogenously incomplete markets, i.e., environments in which risk sharing is constrained

by (informational or enforcement) frictions and insurance arrangements arise endogenously.

One of the most important tools used for studying dynamic incentive problems is the the-

ory of recursive constracts. Recursive formulations allow one to reduce often complex models

to a sequence of essentially static problems that are easier to analyze both analytically and

computationally. This substantially simplifies the analysis and the characterization of the op-

timal insurance arrangements in rich and realistic environments. The goal of this chapter is

to provide an overview of the theory of recursive contracts and give a number of examples of

application. The analysis in the theoretical part is self-contained; whenever a textbook approach

is not directly applicable (e.g., when the assumptions needed to apply the recursive techniques

in Stokey et al. (1989) are not met), we provide the necessary mathematical background. We

also discuss the strengths and weaknesses of several alternative approaches to solving dynamic

incentive problems that emerged in the literature. In the last part of the chapter we show how

the methods of recursive contracts can be used in a variety of applications.

Our paper is organized as follows. Section 2 considers a prototypical dynamic incentive

problem insurance against privately observable idiosyncratic taste shocks under perfect com-

mitment by the principal. The goal of this section is to provide an example of a self-contained,

rigorous and relatively general treatment of a dynamic incentive problem. We also use this

economy in subsequent sections to illustrate other approaches to the analysis of dynamic incen-

tive problems. In Section 2 we highlight the three main steps in the analysis: first, applying

the Revelation Principle to set up a mechanism design problem with incentive constraints; sec-

ond, simplifying this problem by focusing on one-shot incentive constraints; and third, writing

this problem recursively using promised utilities as state variables. We then show how this

recursive formulation can be used to characterize the properties of the optimal insurance ar-

rangements in our economy. We derive general features of the optimal insurance contract and

characterize the long-run behavior of the economy in Section 2.4. We show how to overcome

the technical difficulties that arise when the idiosyncratic shocks are persistent in Section 2.5,

and conclude by showing how the same techniques can be applied to other dynamic incentive

problems, such as moral hazard.

Section 3 considers more advanced topics. We focus on three topics: using Lagrange mul-

1

tiplier tools in recursive formulations, studying dynamic insurance problems in economies in

which the principal has imperfect commitment, and applying martingale techniques to study

recursive contracts in continuous time. Section 3.1 discusses the Lagrangian techniques. Us-

ing Lagrangians together with the recursive methods of Section 2 greatly expands the class of

problems that can be characterized. We first provide an overview of the theory of constrained

optimization using Lagrange multipliers, with a particular focus on showing how to use them in

the infinite dimensional settings that frequently arise in macroeconomic applications. We then

show how to apply these theoretical techniques to incentive problems to obtain several alterna-

tive recursive formulations having some advantages relative to those discussed in Section 2. A

number of results in this section are new to the dynamic contracts literature. In Section 3.2 we

show how to analyze dynamic insurance problems in settings where the principal cannot commit

to the contracts. The arguments used to prove simple versions of the Revelation Principle under

commitment fail in such an environment; we discuss several ways to generalize it and write a

recursive formulation of the mechanism design problem. Our characterization of such problems

relies heavily on our analysis of Section 3.1. Finally, in Section 3.3, we show how to analyze

a dynamic contracting problem in continuous time using martingale methods and the dynamic

programming principle. To keep the analysis self-contained, we start by stating the results of

stochastic calculus that we use. Continuous-time methods often simplify the characterization of

optimal contracts, allowing for analytical comparative statics and easier numerical analysis of

the solution.

Section 4 gives a number of applications of the recursive techniques discussed in Sections 2

and 3 to various environments. We show that these diverse applications share three key features:

(i) insurance is endogenously limited by the presence of a friction; (ii) the problem is dynamic;

(iii) the recursive contract techniques that we develop in the theoretical sections allow us to

derive deep characterizations of these problems. We explain how theoretical constructs such as

the incentive constraints and promised utilities can be mapped into concrete economic concepts,

and how the predictions of dynamic incentive models can be tested empirically and used for

policy analysis. In Section 4.1, we apply the techniques and results of Section 2 to public

finance where the endogenous market incompleteness and the limited social insurance arise

due to the unobservability of the shocks that agents receive. We derive several central results

characterizing the optimal social insurance mechanisms and show how to implement the optimal

allocations with a tax and transfer system that arises endogenously, without restricting the

system exogenously to a specific functional form. In Section 4.2 we show how recursive techniques

can be applied to study the effect of informational frictions on firm dynamics and optimal capital

structure. Section 4.3 presents applications of these techniques to study insurance in village

economies in developing countries where contracts are limited by enforcement and informational

frictions. Section 4.4 discusses applications to international borrowing and lending.

2

2 A simple model of dynamic insurance

In this section we study a prototypical model of dynamic insurance against privately-observed

idiosyncratic shocks. Our goal is to explain the key steps in the analysis and the main economic

insights in the simplest setting. The mathematical techniques that we use as well as the economic

insights that we obtain extend to many richer and more realistic environments. We discuss

examples of such environments in following sections.

2.1 Environment

We consider a discrete-time economy that lasts T periods, where T may be finite or infinite.

The economy is populated by a continuum of ex-ante identical agents whose preferences over

period-t consumption ct 0 are given by tU (ct), where t R+ is an idiosyncratic tasteshock that the individual receives in period t, and U is a utility function.

Assumption 1. The utility function U : R+ R is an increasing, strictly concave, differen-tiable function that satisfies the Inada conditions limc0 U

(c) = and limc U (c) = 0.

All agents have the same discount factor (0, 1). In each period the econom